14th June, 2013
When I was growing up in the rural west of Scotland, Tinkers were the mysterious travelling folk who lived in canvas and overcoat shacks down by the shore where no other locals dared tread. They were called Tinkers because in times past they went from door to door repairing pots and pans. Tinkering tinsmiths, they were. Back in my day, they were treated like a different species, say Neanderthal, something vaguely human but not quite. I'm not sure what their ethnic background was, but they had blond dreadlocks and were somewhat inter-married so that they all looked quite similar. In the end, the council insisted they move into proper houses, a subtle move of extinction that has been played out the world over by the moral majority.
But the travelling folk from the western highlands of Scotland are not what Paul Harding has in mind by Tinkers in his book by the same name. This "Tinkers," might just be one of the few books that, unlike the travelling folk, makes it through to posterity. The adjudicators for the Pulitzer prize in 2010 clearly thought so, too.
Paul Harding's book is about time, how it shifts under our feet, especially as we approach that black hole called death. They say time does not exist close to the edge of a black hole, which makes it all the more poignant that Harding's dying protagonist reflects on his life as a tinkerer of clocks. His wife has silenced the many clocks on the walls of his house so that he won't be disturbed by them going off at all hours, but he sends his grandson to wind them all back up.
I'm on my third read of "Tinkers," a small book at just 191 pages. In an interview at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Harding points out that in any other genre, be it visual or musical, we would never count one encounter with a work as sufficient. We buy a painting, hang it on the wall and keep looking at it. How many times have we listened to Beethhoven's 5th? But with literature, we seem to think that after one read a book should be relegated to the shelf.
Delving into "Tinkers," is like snorkelling through a coral reef, as opposed to taking a quick shower. You're startled by this unexpected underwater beauty, with all the colours and shapes floating past you, the forms of substrata. But most of all, when you get out from under it, Tinkers pulls you back:
"The sun was going down. It sank into the stand of beech trees beyond the back lot, lighting their tops, so that their bare arterial branches turned to a netting of black vessels around brains made of light."
You can't read a sentence like that just once. It is a dream sequence you want to live through again.
He breaks the rules, too. Any teacher of writing who has endlessly warned their students about run-on sentences should take a look at Harding's. Some sentences stretch the entire page, too much to unpack in one sitting. You tell yourself you'll catch it the next time around. But you don't curse him.
How this little book came to be a Pulitzer winner is a story in itself: he showed it to mainstream agents and publishers who shook their heads at him and told him there was no way they would ever be able to sell a book like this. He put it in a drawer for three years. When it was finally picked up, it was by a tiny non-profit publisher which, oddly enough and wonderfully ironically enough, operated out of the former Bellevue Hospital for the insane. He received one thousand dollars in advance. (I wonder what he did with it?) There was no campaign for Tinkers to win the Pulitzer, it just sort of bubbled up from the depths. People waxed lyrical about this most lyric of books. Word got around. Somebody knew somebody who was on the Pulitzer board.
Every morning next week, I am going to be studying with Paul Harding at the Aspen Writer's Festival. By the end of next week I will have more to say about him.
And just because this blog is supposed to be following my own publishing history, let it be known that I turned down cover art for about 500 postcards that I'm handing out at the writer's festival this week. It sported a generic castle and talked about my protagonist's bewitchment by a handsome laird, ignorant of the fact that there were neither castles nor lairds in Scotland at the time of my story. I needed the cards, though, so I asked them to paint them over green and frog march the handsome laird off to some other book that was actually about a handsome laird, there to languish in doggerel heaven. They're arriving on Monday.